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Cooperatives and Sustainability: A Way of Life at Dancing Rabbit

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By Andy Douglas

Off a winding northeastern Missouri county road in the middle of the US, a patchwork expanse of houses, fields and community buildings rises.

  Outside one of the main buildings, a sign: “Ring bell. If no one answers, pull weeds.”

Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage is one of the more durable intentional communities in the country, having been around for 25 years. Intentional communities are part of a tradition of collective living and working dating back many years. Dancing Rabbit seems to stand out with its focus on cooperatives, on ecological projects, and on inner work.

The ecovillage was founded in 1997, after several people from California moved to  Missouri to be near another existing community, Sandhill. This part of the country offered inexpensive land and relaxed zoning laws, a perfect combination for starting such communities. In fact, a number of them still exist in the same general area.

People often move here hoping to make a difference, to address climate change in a practical way. Then, it seems, they experience the difference living in community makes in their own lives: more psychosocial wellbeing, a healthy connection to others and the land. 

Attending a one-week visitor’s program, I got some insight into the workings of the place. Our group gathered in the Milkweed Mercantile our first night to enjoy a meal of falafel, hummus and spanakopita, Arabic music (to match the dinner theme) playing in the background.

One member notes, “I think it’s a pretty healthy community. I just heard the surgeon general’s announcement that half the people in this country are lonely. I’ve never been lonely here.” 

The village operates to a good extent on the basis of cooperatives. This both aligns with the vision of community and offers a model of economic democracy. A car cooperative allows members to give up their personal vehicle and use shared cars. The kitchen cooperatives bring together small groups for cooking and eating together. An agroforestry coop demonstrates healthy soil practices.

One member, Ben Brownlow, has been working with regenerative agriculture here for the last five years. He leads us on a tour of some of the projects. 

“We’re all about regenerating the soil health, putting carbon back into the ground. Sixteen percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture,” he tells us. 

They practice intensive grazing, using a mobile electric fence to move grazing animals to different pastures, and this helps improve carbon sequestration. They also replant a lot of native warm-season prairie grasses, like sorghum, which grow faster and sequester more carbon. And they rotate the animals through the fields for their poop. 

As we walk past one of the fields, an impressively colorful turkey comes over to preen, stomp his feet, and show off. He hustles along the inside of the fence to make sure we can still see him.

The guiding principle, Ben tells us, is to keep the soil covered and photosynthesizing for as long as possible. “We call this a chess game, moving cows, pigs and chickens to the various pastures. The goats take care of the invasive species. Working dogs scare off all the foxes so the chickens are safe, and the foxes don’t have to be killed.” 

There’s an impressive degree of complexity and interconnection at work here. Basically, people are working in cooperation with nature, following principles of permaculture and regenerative agriculture, rather than dominating or controlling nature, as we see with conventional ag.

We pass fields of Chinese chestnuts, Siberian Pea shrubs, and cow peas, all of which bring specific benefits to the soil and inhabitants.

The Rabbits have also created a dairy cooperative. How do you divide the profits in the co-op, I ask Ben? “This is agriculture, there’s no profit,” he laughs. “But we do grow food for the community.” 

Later his wife, Mae Ferber, shares more about the dairy coop. It requires significant ongoing work every day, managed in a decentralized system. Six households participate. 

“We’re currently milking seven goats and two cows and getting around seven gallons of milk per day,” she said.

Since they got Sugar (the first cow, in 2019) they’ve made enough money to cover expenses and pay off debt on the barn. 

“Because we’re pretty small-scale, marketing is a delicate balancing act of trying to move what we have, while setting accurate expectations around seasonal fluctuations in supply.”

Some fifty people live at Dancing Rabbit, with a constant stream of visitors and working guests. Houses are constructed using natural, green materials, like straw bale, or salvaged local materials, and equipped with various energy-conserving technologies: geothermal, solar, passive solar and wind. Water conservation in ponds and cisterns is also an important facet; it’s understood that groundwater sources will not last forever, and catching and storing water is crucial.

On one of our final nights, the entire community – close to 50 people – along with the visitors, gathers in a backyard under a pink moon, to groove to a jazz ensemble from a nearby college. The air is soft, people relaxed; one couple does acro-yoga off to the side. 

There seems as much emphasis on inner sustainability as on outer here. Says another member, Danielle Williams, “Community forces us to confront what’s coming up inside us. You come in contact with intense emotion and the best thing is to normalize it, talk about it. We work on cultivation of emotional resiliency, intimacy, presence and well-being, so as to be more vital and available for connection, contribution and emergence.” 

Of course, there are things people would change if they could. Locate the village closer to a city, perhaps, with a train station. Create more accessibility. An improvement in housing stock, with easier paths to home ownership.

But there’s also an awareness of the importance of what they’re doing in the context of climate change. One member’s voice reveals the passion he feels. “By the end of this century, every country on the planet will be experiencing multiple Katrina-level disasters every year,” this man tells me. “We need to change. For our children and especially our children’s children.”

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